Silence is Golden – and I am NOT Making Up the Word ‘Misophonia’

The last day of school seems like a good time to publish something I wrote on the first day of school, right? I mean, you can’t be surprised by that … when you already know the name of my blog is “Okayest.”

Silence is golden. But so is noise. 

Silence is unnerving. But so is noise. 

I’m in an empty, silent house. It’s the first day of school – the first time all of my kids have been in school since the pandemic started a year and a half ago. It’s wonderful and awful.

When did I get so weird about noise? When I was pregnant with the twins, my senses got messed up. Wires crossed. I thought it was because I was just constantly overstimulated by *being* three people in one body. However, it continued after their birth, probably because I had three babies in diapers simultaneously and someone was always crying. My nerves were raw.

As they got older, my nerves didn’t get un-raw. I think it’s just part of me now. Someone is always talking. It’s like that Star Wars meme that says “Once I became a parent, I finally understood the scene where Yoda gets so tired of answering Luke’s questions that he just dies.”

I don’t know why I’m so weird about noises. I used to be a kindergarten teacher, for heaven’s sake. I could handle a too-small un-air-conditioned classroom with 28 five-year-olds, and still not have anxiety. So what gives? I mean, I *like* noise, so what’s my problem? Maybe it started before the twin pregnancy. When I was on IVF meds, the sound of my husband’s chewing almost made me literally stab him with a fork. To this day, I have to leave the room if he chews ice. I mean, he’s got the best manners you ever saw. Never chews with his mouth open. And I mean never. SO WHY IS IT SO LOUD?! It’s like he uses pit-bull-level jaw force to crack the ice. No, alligator jaw force. More force than is necessary. It carries to the next room. Sometimes to the next floor. 

I learned the word “misophonia”. At least there’s a word for this. I’m not making this up. I swear.

When I was growing up, my guitarist dad always had music playing. Always. And it.was.loud. (“Keep the lullaby to 100 decibels, dear” is something my mom even put in my baby book.) I liked it. Loved it. Like reallllly love love love it. Loud music can even be soothing, because it drowns out the thoughts. Music that’s too quiet feels like a shower with terrible water pressure. It just kind of drips on you and feels creepy, weak, and annoying, like drool. If I put quiet – or even normal-level – music on in the car, the kids talk over it and it just adds to the chaos. BUT (and get out your brain-post-it notes, cuz this is a good mom tip for ya), if you play the music VERY LOUD, the kids stop talking over it and just listen to it. There’s glorious silence found in the amplification. (Beware of going too loud on mediocre speakers, though, as that can lead to “ear fatigue”, according to my audiophile dad. If the speakers are perfect and the sound is balanced, go as loud as you want. Your future self might bemoan your future deafness, but your current self will thank you for the current kids-not-talking silence.)

Now that I’m an adult, I seem to still wait for someone else to put my music on for me. I don’t think I’m claiming my space very well. Or my life. I’m not claiming my life very well. It’s like the silence is punishment for me, deep in my subconscious. “You don’t deserve music, because it will calm you down – and you don’t deserve to rest and be calm.” WTF is that? What is wrong with my brain? I’m realizing I just might also be doing that with reading. And writing. My favorite things. Ugh.

When my babies were babies, I was desperate for quiet. The middle of the night – as soon as my head hit the pillow – someone would cry. I never got more than an hour of quiet/ sleep at a time. It started to mess with my brain. Night became torture. I would get really depressed when the sun started going down. And it didn’t help that they were born in the fall, when it just gets darker and darker by the day. By the minute. Waiting for someone to cry was horrible, but also, once the cry finally did come, I could relax because “the other shoe had dropped”. Does that make sense? 

I couldn’t bear the crying (simul-crying is hell on earth), but I couldn’t bear the silence, either, because I knew it couldn’t last. Anxiety is waiting for something bad to happen. So, when it happens, no matter how bad it is, it’s almost a relief.

As they got older, that feeling continued. But instead of night crying and day crying, it was the constant toddler noises (banging on pots, toys with batteries, screaming tantrums, pulling twin brother’s hair). Then, as they got a little older, it was the constant talking. Talking about legos. Talking about matchbox cars. Talking about forts in the woods. These are all GREAT things to talk about. My kids are pretty cool people, to be honest. It’s not like they’re talking about Fortnite or something (because they don’t know what that is). But when the talking is non-stop, your brain starts to feel like a ping pong ball. 

When the pandemic came, I was so grateful that they were healthy and that we had a big house and yard for them to play in. But the noise level increased, not only because they were home 24/7, but also because they got bigger and bolder and stronger during the months and years that the pandemic kept rolling across the globe. Even when they were outside playing, I was waiting for the noise to start again anytime anyone came in any door. Why do they come in so many doors? Sometimes it feels like one kid is going out the back door while another is coming in the front door. Sometimes all three come inside via a different door – the garage door, the back door, the basement door. I never know where they are coming from and when the talking will resume. I love my kids with all my heart and I’d take a bullet for them but THERE IS SO MUCH TALKING. 

Then we got a pathetic but adorable shelter dog. All the work I’d done in therapy and with self-help books went out the window. I don’t want to overuse the word “trigger”, but this dog is definitely a trigger. The barking and the chaos puts me straight back there. It really doesn’t help matters that he is an anxious dog and only calms down when Mr. Okayest is home. (OMG THE DOG IS ME?!)

Now, the kids are in school. After more than a decade of near-constant parenting, this silence is both soothing and agitating. I guess I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for the cry or the request that spurs me into mom-action. Waiting. Waiting for someone else to turn on my music for me. Waiting for someone to tell me that I deserve soothing silence or reassuring music as loud as I want…. Waiting for someone to direct my life. 

Like I said in previous posts, I’m an untethered balloon. I’m floating here, waiting for the noise to bring me back down. My husband is at work. He can chew his ice there. My dog is napping on the deck in the sunshine, quiet as a mouse. My kids are doing their talking at school. Hopefully not their crying, though. This silence is golden, but my brain can’t quite accept it yet, no matter how much I want it to. It feels good, it sounds good, but I can’t relax. 

I hear the ticking clock. I hear the cicadas in the huge woods outside. I’d hear the washing machine, too, if I’d get off my butt.  

It’s the First Day of (Pandemic) School and I’m an Untethered Balloon

This post was originally written in the fall of 2021, when the kids went back to in-person school during the pandemic. Vaccines were not yet offered to children. I forgot that I wrote it, until today. Here ya go.

It’s here: the first day of school. Pandemic school.

I haven’t been away from them in a year and half*. It physically hurts to be away from them. Can I feel it in my belly? Their absence? Am I imagining this? It feels like when they were born, lifted off my body during that nearly-deadly c-section, when I was finally able to take my first deep breath in nine months. It felt so good when they lifted 15 pounds of baby out of my body, that huge influx of air and freedom I’d been waiting for. It was shocking. Sudden. I was lighter. Breathing on my own was amazing. And then, before that first big beautiful breath was even exhaled all the way, I was desperate for my babies to be reunited with me. I needed them in my arms. I couldn’t bear the weightlessness. It felt so good, but so wrong. I felt like an untethered balloon. I was going to float away if they didn’t place my babies against my chest. It hurt, but in a whole new way. Fifteen pounds of baby in a uterus was terribly painful, but being separated also physically hurt. 

When they got on the bus today, it felt like that again. I could breathe because I had a break from them, but I couldn’t breathe because I was separated from them. I could breathe but I couldn’t breathe.

During the pandemic, I had been so desperate for a break, but now that it’s here, I want them home. I want to scoop them all up in my arms – even though I can’t even lift even one of them – and run into the woods, off the grid, forever. I want to protect them and keep them away from the world… this new world. This new world with viruses that behave like nothing we’ve ever seen, and racism, and extremism, and school shootings and lockdown drills, and hurricanes, and kids with phones with the entire internet of the entire world in their pockets. The world is on fire. Literally. 

We’re trying to raise kids the way we were raised, except the world that we grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. How do we do this? My husband says we do this one day at a time. I’m trying to raise them by accidentally thinking about their entire life every day… but I can’t sustain that level of vigilance. It’s pointless. 

So, trying to live one day at a time but failing, I put the (yet-to-be-vaccinated) kids on the bus for the first time in a year and a half this morning. Like a normal mother. My oldest had left school suddenly in the middle of fourth grade, and now he’s a middle schooler. The twins had left school in the middle of first grade, and now they’re third graders. Those are some monumental jumps. Those are some huge percentages of their lives, just SKIPPED. Just GONE. Look where living one day at a time got us.

After the kids got on the bus, I asked my husband, “So how was my acting? Wasn’t I convincingly calm?” His affirmative answer made me smile. Made me believe for one minute that I’m not screwing up my kids or passing my panic along to them. 

And so, it’s here:  an empty house, alone time, back to “normal”. All kids in school. It’s a mother’s dream, right? Except that it’s a damn global pandemic and I feel like I just marched my (yet-to-be-vaccinated) kids off to their deaths. No big deal. I have to remind myself that 97% of our county sent their kids back to in-person school, even as the Delta variant is raging worse than ever, so I’m not alone in my insanity. My best friend kept her kids home, though, and that makes me second-guess myself. I asked another friend if she was nervous about sending her kids to school, and she said, “Nah, the school will shut down again in a few days anyway.” I had to both laugh and panic at her answer. 

The other years when I sent my kids off to their first day of school – which wasn’t many before covid hit – I was able to talk myself into relaxing. Eventually. I reminded myself of all the normal things: the kids are safe in school; the doors are locked/ they are locked in; their teachers will love them and take care of them; my kids are smart and resilient; going to school is a normal thing and doesn’t harm kids; wearing shoes all day is okay; no, they won’t have enough exercise but they will be okay when they get home and can play in the woods; I didn’t invent school and make them go (it’s just the way it is); they’ll get a free hot lunch and I won’t have to fix it! When I repeated these things in my mind, I would eventually calm down and act like a normal person. 

But this year is not the same at all. This year has never been done before. This year is … incomprehensible. Dangerous. I cannot believe our school supply shopping list included crayons, markers, new backpacks, AND MASKS. When we were kids, I don’t think that even the doctors and dentists and nurses actually wore masks all the time. Now my CHILDREN have to cover their mouths and noses for eight hours straight just to be allowed in their school building. (And they are adjusting beautifully, I might add. It’s the adults who are whining.) There is just no possible way to tell a mom not to worry while sending her (yet-to-be-vaccinated) children off in a pandemic. None of my old ways of talking myself out of worry will help now.

I’m being hyper-vigilant and it’s making me crazy. Every tiny comment and symptom and behavior is scrutinized. Twin A said he was dizzy when reading in bed. Covid! My oldest didn’t have a very big appetite even when eating salmon. Covid! Twin B is tired. Covid! My throat hurts. Covid! My husband looks pale. Covid! The dog barked. Covid! The power went out. Covid! I have to make dinner. Covid! 

My husband says to me, on repeat as needed, “If it happens, we’ll deal with it then.” I logically know that there is no way to prepare for my children to catch covid. I mean, I prepared by making sure our home is stocked with sanitizer, bleach, gatorade, motrin, inhalers and prescriptions and nebulizers…. But there is no way to mentally prepare for illness. Thinking about it will not help. Ruminating will not help. Going in circles inside my head will not prevent covid or change the outcome. I know this. But that doesn’t mean I can stop. 

I’m a fairly reasonable person. I’m well-educated (I think). I am careful about my news sources. I go to therapy. I do all the things. But also, my insurance company says I have generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, PMDD, and chronic PTSD. Why don’t YOU try balancing those diagnoses while sending three small (yet-to-be-vaccinated) children to school (one with learning disabilities and serious asthma, another with incontinence – yes, incontinence) during a global pandemic?! It takes all my effort not to just start screaming and never stop. I am exhausted from the battles raging in my brain. The amount of effort it takes to talk myself down from eternal screaming and panic thoughts – and to at least look normal on the outside – is exhausting. 

My husband calmly reminds me that we have to expect that they will probably get sick. I think about his verbiage: future conditional tense.

If they get sick, we will deal with it then.

If they get sick, they will be okay.

If they get sick, we will deal with it together. 

Future conditional tense: “If” and “will”. Not present – there is nothing I can do now, in the present tense. Conditional – it may or may not happen; there’s an “if” clause. 

I say “Parenting during a pandemic is tough.” Invariably, the older generations reply, “Parenting anytime is tough.” No, not like this. Not like this. They have no idea. How can they? Yes, they worry about their grandchildren. But they’re not dealing with the day-to-day life of raising children in this new world. They don’t see the endless emails from teachers, principals, and superintendents about precaution guidelines and case numbers. They don’t scan Amazon for hours searching for a mask that will fit a child with speech disabilities, and different sized kid faces. They don’t lie awake staring at the ceiling until 3am, wondering….

I have to calm down. I HAVE TO. Get it together, woman. I sing a Black Keys line in my head for an hour: 

“You gotta get yourself together, babe,

try to play it cool…

You gotta get yourself together, babe, 

keep your motor clean…”

We WILL deal with it together, IF it happens. 

IF it happens, we WILL deal with it then.

Overthinking will not prevent anything – but that’s not what Anxiety with a capital “A” tells you. Anxiety with a capital “A” whispers and then screams the lies in your ears: if you just think hard enough and long enough, you can keep everyone safe.

The day passes, both quickly and slowly. I repeat mantras (i.e., just the logical things my husband has said in his calming deep voice). I try to breathe deeply, alone, with no babies in my belly, on my chest, or in my arms. I can breathe! But I can’t breathe. It hurts. 

Just act calm. Just pretend. Pretend for them.

They get home at 5:00 – an hour late – because there’s apparently a national bus driver shortage. Momma, just pretend for them. Try to play it cool. You gotta get yourself together, babe, try to play it cool. “So, how was it?”

“Great!”

“Fine.”

“Okay.”

They run right past me, to greet the dog  with squeals and let him lick them and knock them down. Backpacks and shoes and masks are flying, discarded everywhere. I can breathe again. They are not in my arms, but they are here, and they are okay. They are okay for now. They are okay TODAY. Today. That’s what I have. Present tense. 

If it happens, we will deal with it then. Future conditional tense. 

If it happens, we will deal with it then. I make dinner. I do all the things. If. When. Together. 

I can breathe. But I can’t, you know? 

* with the exception of grandparent visits, which are amazing, but those don’t count, because I knew the kids were safe and happy with people they know and love. Grandparents are an extension of us. THey are not the outside world.